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A Genealogist In The Archives: Preserving an Old Black Paper Photo Album

Friday, October 13, 2017

Preserving an Old Black Paper Photo Album


I love family photographs!

Looking into the faces of my ancestors in photographs and wondering what they were like, how they lived and what they did on a daily basis is a huge part of my genealogy research journey.

One obstacle that we might face with our photographs are those old black paper photo albums that look like this:

Price Family Photo Album, Houston County, TN. Archives

These were extremely popular back in the late 1800's and throughout the 1900's. The photographs were either pasted onto the pages or they were inserted with photo corners that are pasted into the album.

We have several of these types of black paper photo albums in the Houston County, TN. Archives. It is very important that these types of photo albums be handled with care and preserved properly. Any home archivist can preserve their own black paper photo albums. But I always like to say that if you don't feel comfortable doing this preservation project yourself, then I highly recommend you consult with an archivist or conservator in your area to help you.

First and foremost, the black paper in these albums is not archival. They are not acid free and are full of chemicals. The paste that was used to adhere the photographs is also not archival and can be damaging to photographs.

The first thought would be to remove the photographs from these albums. STOP!!

I would caution you about removing the photos from these types of black paper albums. I will say that if the paste has worn away or deteriorated enough that the photos come off the pages easy, then removing the photographs would be okay. Otherwise, DO NOT REMOVE THE PHOTOS! Dismantling a photograph album like this should be your last resort.

We know that the pages are not archival but you could do much more damage to the photographs trying to remove them than the paper is doing.

Price Family Photograph, Houston County, TN. Archives

Before you even start, put on GLOVES! When working with photographs, archivist always use gloves to keep the oils and dirt from their hands from getting on the photographs and causing damage. You can use white cotton gloves or regular latex gloves. Do not handle any photographs without wearing gloves.

I would suggest that you first digitize the pages in the photo album. Use a flat bed scanner, digital camera or some other device that allows you to lay the pages flat. Do not use any device that requires you to feed the pages through the device, that could cause damage.

Digitizing and documenting each and every photograph from the album is a great archiving tool. If something were to happen to the album, you will still have the digital images.

Use archival tissue paper and interweave the tissue paper between each and every page. This will create a bearer between the photographs and the adjacent black paper pages.

Interweaving Tissue Paper, Houston County, TN. Archives

Place the entire photograph album in an archival box. You will want to purchase a box that fits the album as perfectly as possible. If the album is moving around in the box, crumple up tissue paper and put around the album so it doesn't move. Do not cram the photo album in too small of a box. You want the album to fit snuggly so it doesn't move at all.

Store the box with the album in a cool, dark and dry place. Never store documents, photographs or artifacts in an attic, basement or someplace where it is humid. Always keep out of the sunlight.

If you are fortunate enough to have these wonderful old black paper photo albums with your ancestor's photographs in them, you have a treasure! So, let's preserve and archive that album so that future generations can enjoy those photographs!



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  1. Rats! I already dismantled one black-paper album -- a decade ago. I have several others, so your info will help me do a better job protecting them. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for this! I'm in the process of digitizing/archiving family photos and I know we have a few of these. I was afraid to take them off the paper so I'm glad I hadn't done anything with them yet. Thanks!

    1. You are so Welcome Cassandra! Thank You for reading my blog!

  3. Frances, Thank You for reading my blog! Dismantling an album is not the worst thing you could have done believe me, I have done the same thing! Hope these tips help with the albums you still have to preserve!

  4. Carefully pulled a few photos off a decade or so ago and generally agree with your advice BUT I found names on the back of a few. At the time, I used dental floss.

    1. Dental floss is a great way to try to get photos off of those pages. As genealogists we want so badly to see if there are names on the backs of those photographs, although it does make you wonder why they would write the names of the back and then paste the photos in an album where you can't read them? LOL! Thanks for reading my blog!

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  6. Black paper albums! This is exaclty what I've been waiting to work on: My granfather's 1913 photo album of his work with the building of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad in Western Canada. I bought a product about 2 years ago but have been afraid to use it. You saved my Grandfather's photos! I don't mind keeping the album the way it is but I'd really like to know if any of the other folks in the pics are id'd on the back. He died in 1955 when I as about 3 years old and my grandmother in 1962 before I even knew the album existed. I can spot my 25 year old grandfather but I guess I'll never find out who the rest of these men are. It's doubly frustrating because he left a diary, a 104 year old blog, where he entered something every day. Since it mentions the men he worked with, it would have been an extra treat to see who was who. It would add an extra dimention to the diary.

    1. Hello Dave! You could try using non-waxed dental floss and see if that will slide between the photo and the paper and if the photo will come off easy to see if anything is written on the back of the photos. Otherwise I would say leave them alone. Thanks for reading my blog!

  7. I have four of these albums that belonged to my great grandmother. They were given to me by my father. I never knew anyone on this side of the family except for one of my grandmother's cousins, so they are real treasures to me. Several photos are falling out, and I've removed some to see if there were any names on the back. What is the safest way for me to reattach them, and then follow the instructions that you so graciously gave above? Your help is so appreciated. Thank you!

    1. Hello, I would suggest that don't attach them back in the album. I would get some archival sleeves that fit the photographs and then tuck them in the album where they once were attached. If you don't know where they were attached then just put them in the front or the back of the album. You can purchase the sleeves at any online archival store, they come in all different sizes to accommodate all kinds of photos. Hope this helps. Thank You for reading my blog!